In 1957, the Steelers celebrated their 25th anniversary — a quarter century of dreadful football. The team began that year with the bumbling Walt Kiesling as coach. Kiesling is mostly remembered as the guy who cut from the team a young and promising Pittsburgh quarterback named Johnny Unitas.
In late August, however, Kiesling was out. His replacement: Buddy Parker. It seemed like a great move. Parker was famous for making champions out of the once-awful Detroit Lions. Maybe he could do the same here.
Kiesling said goodbye to his team in a speech most notable for its lack of drama. “Kiesling has no emotion about anything,” said one Steelers official, “unless it’s a horse coming down the stretch.”
Then, in came Parker. He was one of those profane, chain-smoking guys from professional football’s early days. During games, he’d squat on the sidelines (squatting gave him a better view of the blocking, he claimed) and burn through two packs of cigarettes.
Another of Parker’s charms was his fear of unlucky numbers. He refused to stay in rooms whose numbers added up to 13. An example: Room 1903 was a no-no. True story. It happened in Baltimore in 1957.
Upon his arrival, Parker had an immediate impact on the team. He released older players, traded others and gave up draft choices. So many new faces joined the team that, in November, The Pittsburgh Press felt compelled to introduce them by publishing a gallery of photographic portraits shot at Forbes Field. We recently found the original 4×5 negatives and, as you can see in this post, they’re in splendid shape.
The newbies were an earnest-looking bunch, with great names like Jug Girard, Jack Nisby and Aubrey Rozzell. Lineman Mike Sandusky grins at the camera, showing a gap where a tooth had been knocked out. Halfback Billy Wells appears to be snarling, or perhaps fighting off a sneeze.
Parker’s rebuilt Steelers finished 6-6 in 1957, then improved to 7-5 in ‘58. It seemed the city would finally have a pro football team worth bragging about.
Players respected Parker as a coach. After losses, though, they feared the man. Parker was a terrible loser. After a defeat, he was known to hit the bottle and, with curses flying, go looking for a fight among the players he felt had cost him the game. Sometimes he’d he’d tape his hands like a boxer’s to better prepare himself for fisticuffs. Players who’d screwed up cowered in their rooms.
Sometimes Parker’s actions made little sense. One loss left him so angry he cut up his necktie. Another inspired him to put his entire roster on waivers. The commissioner told him such a move wasn’t allowed. “Why not?” Parker asked. “They all stink.”
Particularly galling defeats often drove Parker to announce he was quitting the Steelers. Writers thinking they had a scoop would run with the story, only to be embarrassed when Parker showed up for work on Monday. Press sports editor Pat Livingston learned to hold news of Parker’s resignations for a day or two, saving himself from writing a correction.
Parker’s best year was 1962, when the Steelers finished 9-5 and earned 2nd place in the Eastern Division. But by 1964, the Steelers were once again the losers they’d always been.
“I don’t think I can handle this team anymore,” Parker told owner Art Rooney.
“I don’t think so either,” Rooney said.
And that was the end of Parker in Pittsburgh.